What to Make of the Clearing of Rabaa

What are we to make of the events in Egypt this morning?

In the wee hours of the morning, when I first got up to catch a flight from Ottawa to Edmonton, the reports were basically that there was a massacre occurring as security forces cleared protestors from Rabaa Square in Cairo. There were also reports of Coptic churches burned down in other parts of Egypt.

At the end of it all, as the New York Times reports, a month of emergency rule has been implemented and interim vice president Mohamed ElBaradei has resigned in protest. Perhaps most chillingly, correspondent David Kirkpatrick writes, “the crackdown was the clearest sign yet that the old Egyptian police state was re-emerging in full force, defying the protests of liberal members of the interim cabinet.”

The death toll, which was hovering between the high teens and low 40s nearly 12 hours ago is now sitting at almost 300, including around 40 security officers killed. The Times has also reported the imposition of a curfew. Having been to Egypt last year, I can’t imagine the streets of Cairo cleared at 7 p.m. as it seemed to me at its most vibrant once the sun went down and things cooled off.

Nevertheless, things have rather very clearly changed.

As local commentators consistently remind us in the West, while the overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi by the Egyptian military was technically a coup, it had the overwhelming support of the Egyptian people making it significantly more nuanced than a standard military overthrow.

There have been bursts of violence since Morsi was deposed at the end of June, following massive protests in Tahrir Square and around Egypt. Security forces have killed many members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s political and religious party.

However, the picture isn’t so clear: images have come out of Egypt of torture and lynchings, with allegations that they have come out of the pro-Morsi camp. The Big Pharaoh, an anonymous Egyptian blogger, has kept some track of these abuses on his Twitter feed.

In addition, there’s a hugely dark side to the protests. A recent Vice article calls Tahrir “the place women go to get raped.”

Who the perpetrators are isn’t clear.

For the pro-Morsi supporters, it seems like their weapons of choice are stones, bottle rockets and the occasional Molotov cocktail. However, there were some reports of some homemade guns, and heavier weaponry, such as AK-47s.

Whether or not those reports are true, I’m not sure. It sounded this morning like some of those reports were coming from state-controlled television networks, which is naturally suspect.

However, conflicting with some local reports, the Times said definitively that “there was no evidence that the Islamists had stockpiled weapons inside the encampment, as Egyptian state media had claimed.”

Whatever the complexities of the protest situation in Egypt are, and not being on the ground, it’s nearly impossible to say, there is at least one truth that can’t be ignored.

Fundamentally, blame rests with the state.

It seems to me that this is not a moment of pro-Morsi vs. anti-Morsi — even though that’s how this all began back in June when the military sided with anti-Morsi types.

It’s a moment of citizen vs. military, and it seems clear — not that a way forward politically is ever really all that clear or easy — that this should be cause for solidarity among Egyptians of all ideological stripes, and that despite the doomsday predictions that this will usher in years of military rule, it makes the call for urgent democratization all the more important.

Despite the popular support for Morsi’s deposition, it must be respected that the pro-Morsi camp does have every reason to be agitated: their leader won the first election in Egypt’s history, more or less fairly. If there’s any legitimate criticism to be made of the coup, it’s that democracy can’t succeed if an unpopular leader can simply be ousted.

Writing in Foreign PolicyTawakkol Karman, a Yemeni activist and Nobel Prize recipient, even called Morsi the “Arab world’s Mandela,” and argued that “The coup could lead society to lose its faith in democracy, which will give terrorist groups a chance to breathe again.”

This has been echoed today, notably in the Atlantic by Michael Hirsh, who writes “the actions of the Egyptian military could de-legitimize democratic change in the Arab world for a generation or more.”

Once you concede – as it must be conceded – that there are legitimate grievances among Morsi supports, what is the way forward, and what are we to make of the horrific tragedy that unfolded today?

The entire thing is symptomatic of the breakdown of law and order. Over the past weeks, it seems clear that the reports of torture, rape and death are of paramount concern, and the state security apparatus has not only the right but the duty, to prevent and investigate those crimes. That doesn’t appear to have happened.

If these alleged crimes had any link to the clearing of the protest today, that still wouldn’t justify why live ammunition was used on protestors.

The simple fact remains, though, that there is no possible justification for using automatic weaponry against protestors armed with sticks, rocks and fireworks. The White House has at least issued a condemnation — an embarrassingly tepid one, mind you — but it does suggest that there is at least the vague understanding that things have gone horribly wrong in Egypt. There were also condemnations in the region, from Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Hamas, among others.

Finally, the entire thing smacks of a deliberate effort to ignore the lessons of history.

It was Nasser’s execution of the philosophical leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s – and their subsequent martyrdom – that gave the organization potency and endurance. It can only be historical ignorance that makes killing members of this group seem like a good idea. Much better, as best you can, to allow radical (well, reactionary, actually) movements to fizzle out instead of creating a whole new set of grievances by killing them.

Whatever the truth of the crimes allegedly committed by pro-Morsi supporters, one truth cannot be ignored at the end of the day, once the guns have gone silent: heavily armed security forces fired upon asymmetrically armed protestors who have a legitimate political grievance.

Instead of policing, they chose military tactics.

This can’t possibly bode well.

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